mascherina pandemia coronavirus

The circularity of disposable masks

A number of solutions to recycle the most common defence against the spread of the pandemic.

by Davide Perillo
03 May 2021
13 min read
by Davide Perillo
03 May 2021
13 min read

There are 130 billion masks thrown away every month. That means 180 million per hour worldwide. If we multiply that by the amount of time that has lapsed since the onset of the pandemic until today, plus an unknown amount of future time because, vaccine or not, we’ll be wearing them for a while still, and you arrive at chilling figures, much more than what we have been seeing. Disposable masks, the highly-regarded weapon against COVID around the world, are becoming an enormous environmental problem. We use heaps of them, just under a billion per month in Italy alone, estimates the Polytechnic University of Turin, but we’re unable to dispose of them as we normally would. You only have to look around you to see how many escape the incinerator and end up on the street, in parks and in the oceans. If we want to make more calculations, multiply everything by the 450 years that a mask needs to decompose (they are mostly made of polypropylene), and we arrive at a complete picture of what has now become not only a health emergency, but an ecological one as well.

It’s not only a question of quantity and spread; it’s the very nature of these pieces of personal protective equipment that makes them difficult to manage. Disposable and able to spread infection, they’re almost treated like hazardous waste. Unsurprisingly, initial attempts to reduce their widespread use introduced a problem tied to the virus: people wondered if there was an alternative. Let’s sterilise them so we can reuse them, like cloth masks. A noble attempt, corroborated by experiments and prototypes (one of the most advanced was offered by De Lama, an Italian company specialised in creating machines used to treat hospital waste), but extremely difficult in practice.

Plaxtil, the French start-up

Now, little by little, other more circular avenues are being pursued. Recycling masks isn’t easy. They’re made of composite materials, which are the most difficult to dispose of, and the risk of spreading infection creates barriers to any type of treatment. Now, more than a year since the onset of the pandemic, we’re beginning to see signs of progress. For example, Plaxtil, a small start-up based in Châtellerault, in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France, which launched two years ago with the goal of recycling textiles, gained sudden recognition last summer when it announced that it had developed a system to recycle disposable masks. To turn the problem into an opportunity, or a way out of “a strictly linear cycle”, as noted by Jean-Marc Neveu to the Nouvelle Republique, one of the company’s founders, “To take on these issues, we need to rethink how products function and are used, to restore balance to their lifecycles”.

In terms of the Plaxtil project, this means collecting used masks at stations placed strategically in shopping centres and pharmacies (around fifty, for now) to let them quarantine for four days. Then, once the metal nose piece has been (manually) removed, they’re broken down and sterilised by a special machine which feeds them through a tunnel, where they are exposed to UV rays. “They kill viruses in four seconds, but we leave them there for 25 just to be 110% sure”, explains Olivier Civil, the company’s co-founder.

Next, they are mixed with a special resin to harden the material to achieve the right consistency. From there, the product enters the plastic processing cycle and moves to the standard injection moulding machines. It comes out in the form of other COVID-protection items, such as face shields, door openers, or small plastic tongs used to operate handles without touching them. “We’ve even been able to recycle lint, and now we’re going to test production of textile fibers”, said Pascal Mongella, the head of production, in one of the many interviews published in newspapers around the world. 

From the USA, TerraCycle

The French company, however, is not alone. TerraCycle, the pocket-sized recycling multinational, has started down the same road. In the United States, it collects masks, disposable gloves, and face shields in special boxes, leaves them to quarantine for 72 hours, and then sorts and separates the materials. Polypropylene is processed to become a raw material for other products, such as containers, pipes and outdoor furniture. The metal fasteners are melted down and returned to the production cycle. The elastane and rubber from gloves is broken down into a powder, which can be used to produce coatings for outdoor basketball courts or running tracks.

For now, the project excludes hospital waste, as the risk of contamination is too high. However, it is expanding to shopping centres, schools and universities. It’s crossed the border into Canada, too. In Winnipeg, Red River College placed TerraCycle boxes around its campus to curb the effects of the collateral damage caused by what have now “become everyday items: when you leave your house, you take your keys, mobile and mask”, says Sara MacArthur, the head of sustainability at the school. “You end up finding them everywhere. We need solutions”.

Canadian Vitacore

Another Canadian company is looking for them, as well: Vitacore, based in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver. It is estimated that this year alone, 93,000 tonnes of masks will be sent to landfill there. The company is testing a similar system to “give a second life not only to disposables, but to respirators, the heaviest devices, as well”, Mikhail Moore, its president, told Global News. Collected directly in hospitals and at other locations throughout the city, the masks will be processed and transformed into raw plastic pellets which can be reused in many ways.

Australian-based research

In the other hemisphere, they are paving the way for new roads –literally. In Australia, researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology created a system for transforming masks into asphalt. “Three million masks are needed for every two-lane road”, says Jie Li, the leader of the team working on the project. In terms of environmental benefits, this would mean 93 fewer tonnes of waste sent to landfill, according to a study published in Science of the Total Environment.

The multistep process starts with collection, of course. The idea is to separate masks from other types of waste, “by using air jets and barriers, taking advantage of the fact that they are lightweight”. Then, once the issue of sterilisation has been resolved (they’re still looking for the best solution), the masks are broken down into 0.5 cm strips and added to recycled cement aggregate, a compound used to create the sub-layers below the street. Only a small percentage is added (1%-3%), but it’s enough to strengthen the chemical bond between the particles that make up the material”. This, says Mohammed Saberian, one of the project’s engineers, translates into “real-world benefits in terms of elasticity and helping to compact the asphalt”. While corporate partners are being sought for the first road tests, the study is being expanded to concrete production. It represents another attempt “to provide intelligent, smart solutions to a problem that runs the risk of becoming unsolvable”, says Jie Li.

In Spain, masks live multiple lives

Meanwhile, as we wait for solutions that can be rolled out on a global scale, some people are opting for more interesting, DIY-type approaches. In Spain, in the seaside region of Cantabria, the local pharmacist’s consortium organised the Una mascarilla tiene muchas vidas (A mask has many lives) initiative. The masks collected in containers placed in 261 pharmacies (on the condition that they do not come from households with a sick family member) are then packaged and sent to a local company who recovers the useful materials. “This isn’t just a recycling campaign, it’s a civic awareness campaign”, Jorge de la Puente, director of the region’s health authority, told newspapers.

Korean design

In contrast, in South Korea, Kim Ha-Neul, a student at the Kaywon University of Art and Design in Uiwang, launched an even more ambitious project of his own: he collected 10,000 coloured masks, quarantined them for four days, removed the metal and elastics, and melted them at 300° using a heat gun directly in a mould. The end product? A series of three-legged stools that are 45 cm tall that were put on display at an exhibit at the university. He is also thinking of producing other items, sending “a strong message for the environment”.

Biodegradable masks in Switzerland and Australia

For now, these attempts go along with the other line of attempts for people looking for alternative solutions, i.e. new materials. The Lausanne Institute of Technology, in Switzerland, is studying the HelloMask, which is made from plastic made from 99% biomass. It’s clear, filters where needed, and, of course, biodegradable. But it will cost you. Just as, for now, there are no plans for wide-scale production of another idea developed in Brisbane, Australia. Queensland University of Technology is testing a material created from weaving sugar cane waste; its cellulose fibers would allow it to filter out nano particles the size of viruses, while allowing you to breathe comfortably. We’re still at the beginning of a long process that requires investment, vision and possibly bold encouragement from governments, given that the emergency affects everyone, and we are only gradually realising this.

The author: Davide Perillo

Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.